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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, at Governance in a New Era Conference, 23 August, 2001

Address by COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, at Governance in a New Era Conference

23 August 2001

The Promotion of Access to Information Act and the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act - Opportunities & Challenges" Let me take this opportunity to thank the organisers for the opportunity to participate in this exciting conference on "Corporate gover nance in a New Era". I also like to apologise that I will not be able to stay for the entire duration of the conference due to other commitments.

The Promotion of Access to Information and the Administrative Justice Acts represent important milestones in our young democracy - and naturally bring with them new challenges and opportunities. They would transform the relationship between citizens and t he state on the one hand, and the relationship between citizens - particularly corporate citizens and ordinary people. In discussing these pieces of legislation we should not lose sight of the context and background within which they emerged.

South Africa was for a long time subject to authoritarian minority rule, which engendered secrecy within both the private and the public spheres. This was typical of an undemocratic political system, which did not value popular participation. Further, th e culture of secrecy combined with authoritarian management and political ethos created arbitrary actions and the victims denied the necessary recourse.

Moreover South Africa was not a right-based society and as we march forward we are confronted with the challenge to promote, protect and realise rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights. The Constitution represents a beacon and the basis upon which a truly democratic society would be built. COSATU believes in a radical democracy in which the people participate in decision-making rather than voting in periodic elections. The South African Constitution also aspires to the type of society characterised by goo d governance and all that goes with it - accountability, democratic participation, transparency and so forth.

For citizens to participate fully in a democracy they need the assurance that they will receive accurate and timely information and will not be subject to arbitrary action by government officials or managers. Those who wield power need checks and balance - and it is only an informed citizenry that is able to exercise this function. However, information is not only necessary only to participate in decision-making but also in protecting and exercising rights.

Against this background, COSATU participated in the development of both the Promotion of Access to Information Act and the Promotion of Administrative Act - along side a number of civil society organisation. COSATU's objective was to ensure that access to information is not frustrated by the imperatives of secrecy - of course within reasonable limitations and over-rides. Secondly, COSATU's key concern was to ensure that the legislation fulfil the mandate of the Constitution by applying the law to the priv ate sector.

In COSATU's view, the application of this legislation to the private sector was very important as these corporations wields power and routinely take decisions that impact on people's rights. In this regard good governance should not be seen as only necess ary for public bodies but must also be extended to the private sector. In the complex society we live in - accountability of CEO's has become an important issue - but shareholders would not be able to ensure such accountability on their own. Further, the South African private sector would also have to learn to act in a manner that respect people's rights rather than act with impunity.

Thirdly, COSATU wanted to ensure that access to information does not become the preserve of the rich and powerful - that is information becoming a commodity. Of course institutions need to be compensated for administrative costs but this should not serve to place the law beyond the reach of ordinary people. In this vein, COSATU sought to introduce the right-to-know paradigm - whereby state bodies in particular would proactively disclose information to avoid over-reliance on a requester-driven approach.

COSATU supported the administrative justice legislation for it would protect citizens against arbitrary action from the state. The public sector under apartheid routinely denied people access to social grants and other benefits without giving reasons. Fo r many this spelled death as whole families depended on state old age pension. The legislation will prevent such actions from recurring in future. But more fundamentally, the legislation entrenches the right of people to decide on the nature and quality o f services rather than being mere recipients of public services.

Both these laws to be successful require massive injection of resources including people resources for them to be real. The state must build infrastructure to ensure the realisation of these rights, which are not a luxury but an important ingredient for go od governance. Private corporations should also ensure that it invest in creating the necessary infrastructure to realise the right to access information. COSATU and other organs of civil society could play a supportive role by widening public awareness of these rights. Equally, important organs of civil society must themselves build the necessary capability to ensure the realisation of this right'

There is no doubt that there are new opportunities and challenges to be explored with the new legislation. Both the Promotion of Access to Information and Administrative Justice laws are important pillars in ensuring good governance, transparency and acco untability.

I thank you